SANSKRITA BHARADWAJ 28 Jun 2023 12 min read

For a poem she posted on Facebook in 2022, Assam teen Barshashree Buragohain was arrested and jailed for two months under India’s draconian anti-terror law, widely used against protestors or dissidents, with a conviction rate of 2.8%. The police called her post ‘anti-national’ and an implicit endorsement of a banned insurgent outfit. The law’s chilling effect is apparent. Buragohain, now 20, studies maths, minds what she posts, and wants to be a bureaucrat.

Barshashree Buragohain at her home in Banai Katarikham in upper Assam’s Jorhat district./ PHOTOGRAPHS BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Guwahati: Swadhin xurujor dixe akou ekhuj, akou korim rashta druh (One more step in the direction of the sun of liberty, I will commit treason once more).”

When maths student Barshashree Buragohain, then 18, casually wrote this verse in a poem she posted on her Facebook page on 3 May 2022, she did not imagine the consequences. Fifteen days later, the Assam police arrested her for writing an “anti-national poem” and booked her under the provisions of India’s draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967, or the UAPA.

The rising sun is the symbol of the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I)—a banned insurgent outfit in Assam. In the FIR against her, these lines were construed as a “criminal conspiracy” and “intent to wage war against the Indian government”. 

She spent 63 days in prison before being granted bail on 22 July 2022. On 16 March 2023, Buragohain, now 20, was “acquitted of all charges”. 

The memories of her incarceration frequently consume her, she said, and her current state of mind provided an indication of the chilling effect of her arrest and incarceration under an anti-terror law.

“I kept thinking to myself I didn’t do anything wrong to be in jail,” Buragohain told Article 14, explaining how she “loved reading and writing poetry”. Now a fourth semester student at the Debi Charan Baruah (DCB) Girls’ College in upper Assam’s Jorhat town, Buragohain concentrates on mathematics, the subject she hopes to graduate in. 

Buragohain said she was interested in both maths and poetry, and she couldn’t pick one over the other. Her desire was to continue with maths, “pursue a master’s and then try for the civil services.” 

The UAPA allows detention without trial for six months and turns the burden of proof on the accused. Though Buragohain was released on bail after being incarcerated for two months, her case reflects the chilling effect that the use of UAPA has on free speech and expression. Indeed, while Buragohain said her love for poetry endured, its content had changed. 

Buragohain smiled as she said she has now transitioned to writing and sharing poems about “love and romance”. She was more mindful of what she posted on her social media, afraid that she might be under watch and could be arrested again. 

According to a September 2022 report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, which cites data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), less than 3% of arrests made under the UAPA Act between 2015 and 2020 resulted in convictions. The report discussed the increasing tendency of the union government’s prosecuting agencies to apply the UAPA. 

Out of 8,371 persons arrested under the UAPA, 235 were convicted in the five-year period, the report showed. The acquittal rate of the law is 97.2%, the report said, arguing that the prosecution under UAPA lacks merit “in a huge majority of the cases”. 

Around 3,900 UAPA cases were pending investigation across all states and Union Territories at the end of 2021, according to NCRB data. In 2019, the number was 3,993 and in 2020, it was 4,101.

In July 2020, lawyer Abhinav Sekhri wrote in Article 14 that “the vague, almost boundless, scope” of the UAPA allows for punishing thought crimes, where the act itself might matter less compared to the intentions allegedly imputed to a person. 

“These allegations can only be refuted at trial,” wrote Sekhri, “in all probability being fought by the accused from behind bars, as the chances for securing bail are exceedingly small.”

From ‘Counselling’ To Arrest Under UAPA

Asked about her idea behind the lines she was arrested for, Buragohain said poems often have layered meanings. “You may write something, but it might be interpreted in a completely different manner by the reader,” she said. “Everyone has their own analysis.” 

She said she has an interest in social and political issues but didn’t realise those two lines could be construed as radical or revolutionary in tone. 

However, she and her brother, 25-year-old Arindom Buragohain, a freelance journalist who writes for the local Assamese media, both believed it didn’t warrant an arrest. “As citizens of a democratic country, we have the freedom to express ourselves on social media,” Arindom Buragohain said. 

It was only after she finished her Class 12 that Buragohain moved out of her home and village for the first time. She enrolled at Jorhat town’s DCB Girls’ College. The day she was arrested, she was visiting a college friend’s home in Uriamghat village in Golaghat district, about four hours away from her village. 

“The arrest was completely shocking,” she said, “I was at my friend’s place and I thought the police must have arrived at their place for some other thing. I wasn’t even active in any college-level politics.”

When Article14 asked Arindom Buragohain about whether he was informed about his sister’s arrest, he said the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) of Uriamghat police station called him and said Barshashree was in their custody. 

“I got to know while she was being taken in the police car,” said Arindom, who lives in Guwahati city, more than 300 km away. Their parents were also informed around the same time. 

Barshashree Buragohain and her family members were told by the police that they had detained her for “counselling” and that she would be able to leave the next day. “But they didn’t do any counselling,” she said. 

The next day, they took her to the session’s court judge, Golaghat, after which she was transferred to the Golaghat district jail. “I don’t easily shed tears but I was sad and scared.” 

By the time her father reached the police station the next day, police had already taken her to jail. “My father thought he would be able to bring her home but instead they made him sign the arrest memo that a guardian needs to sign,” Arindom said.

A source in Assam police who asked to remain anonymous told Article14 that Buragohain was not arrested for just those two lines, but for other “objectionable” posts as well, which she was made to delete at the police station. “The environment around that time was such that there were a lot of youth who were going to join the ULFA,” the source said, adding that the authorities were trying to take precautions. 

Article 14 asked Buragohain about posts she was made to delete. She said there were three or four posts against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 that she was asked to delete.

Article 14 reached out to Assam’s director general of police (DGP) GP Singh and asked if Buragohain’s arrest was a case of overreach. According to him, during the counselling session, Buragohain had admitted her interest in joining the ULFA. 

“It was a serious offence,” Singh said, adding that ULFA is a proscribed organisation and in the past there have been instances of youth from Assam who joined the outfit, and even died in Myanmar. “It is our duty to prevent our youth from joining them.”

Singh also added that it was the State that decided to withdraw all charges against Buragohain because she wrote a letter to the government stating that she would be mindful of what she posts on social media and would pursue her studies. “She was released without a trial,” he said. 

Buragohain denied she ever expressed an interest in joining the ULFA. 

(From left to right) Putali Buragohain (Barshashree’s aunt), Chenimai Buragohain (Barshashree’s grandmother), Barshashree Buragohain and Usha Buragohain (mother) pose for a photo in their village Banai Katarikham in upper Assam’s Jorhat district. 

Financially And Emotionally Drained

According to the Buragohain siblings, their father works as a farmer on his own land—mostly cultivating dhan (rice). Assam’s annual floods would sometimes destroy their crop. 

When farming did not yield an adequate income, their father took up daily wage work. “We are economically weak,” Buragohain said.

According to Arindom Buragohain, “well-wishers” came forward to help them with funds after her arrest. Most of that money was spent on transport and accommodation, he said. 

Travelling to jail and back from their village, a distance of more than 50 km, was expensive. “My father visited her multiple times and I would also visit her from Guwahati.” 

Arindom said money was also spent to appeal in the Gauhati high court that granted her bail in 2022 after the Golaghat sessions court initially rejected her bail petition. These expenses added up to about Rs 150,000, he said. The lawyers in Golaghat who handled her case until her release, however, did not charge any fee. 

The legal procedures also took an emotional toll on the family.

“My parents were stressed thinking about what society would say,” Buragohain said. If villagers discussed her arrest and her parents heard about it, it was difficult for them to explain why someone could be arrested for writing a poem on Facebook. “They would imagine I’ve actually done something wrong,” Buragohain said. 

Arindom said their mother was deeply affected by the crisis and cried often. 

He said local residents  eventually began to take his sister’s side because there were many people, in the media and others, who questioned “the arbitrariness of the arrest”.

Back to attending college and appearing for exams, Buragohain said she still writes poems on her Facebook page, though not regularly. “And I am mindful while posting,” she said. “Now I mostly write about love.”

Police FIR Was Filed Suo-Moto 

Who might have complained about Buragohain’s Facebook post remained a mystery.

“I don’t have any idea,” Buragohain said, adding that she wasn’t very popular on Facebook but that there were some people on her friends’ list who she had never met. 

“It’s not possible to know everyone on your Facebook friend list,” said Buragohain. “I think someone on my friends list might have complained but I honestly don’t know why someone would do that and what problem they had with me.” 

Her brother, too, said he did not know who might have been offended. It was not possible to keep track of what each and every person posted on social media, he said. “I myself never saw what my sister was posting on her Facebook.” 

Buragohain’s lawyer, Ritupallab Saikia, said the first information report (FIR) was registered suo-moto. “The case was raised by the police itself as the FIR was filed by a local constable from the area she was arrested from,” said Saikia. He said they did not know if the police had been tipped off or if they had a mechanism through which they were keeping track of social media posts. 

Saikia said this wasn’t a case that attracted sections of the UAPA. “She should have been given a chance,” he said.

The source in Assam police who asked to remain anonymous said that routine “monitoring” is undertaken by the police’s cyber cell through which they got to know about Buragohain’s posts. 

Love For Assamese Poetry

When Buragohain was young, she said, she wasn’t introduced to any famous poets. “I would just read poems in local Assamese magazines,” Buragohain, who hails from a village called Banai Katarikham in upper Assam’s Jorhat district, said. 

But after her initial interest, she started reading and admiring the late poet Hiren Bhattacharyya—popularly known as Hiru da in Assam. 

She read Assamese novels too, and sometimes took inspiration from them or simply took lines and pasted them on her Facebook account, with credit to the original. “Some of the other stuff I posted were my original poems,” Buragohain said, adding that the two lines of the poem she was arrested for were from her own work. 

She said she was also inspired by her elder brother who wrote poems when he was young. “After my Class 10, I started an online magazine, and all its work used to happen at home and my friends would also join me,” Arindom Buragohain told Article14

He had won a laptop from the government after securing a first division in his exams and used it to work on the magazine. “We spoke about literature a lot,” he said. “My sister would listen and I think that’s how she got interested in it.” 

A 20-Yr-Old’s Experience In Jail

One of the main hurdles for the family during her incarceration was to come to a conclusion on where Buragohain could appear for her second semester exams. 

Buragohain wrote a letter from the jail to the session’s court requesting permission to appear for her exams, according to Saikia. The session’s judge allowed her to appear for her exams at the “proper venue” (as per Dibrugarh University guidelines that DCB College follows, “proper venue” refers to the place or the centre where the exam is held.) 

The principal of DCB College, however, wrote to the session’s judge that keeping in mind the long distance between Golaghat jail and Jorhat town, Buragohain should instead take her exams in the jail premises itself. The principal requested the judge that this procedure be carried out by the Golaghat district commissioner.

“We wrote a letter to the court again and even the court ordered that she should take the exam at the venue but in the meantime she ended up giving two exams in  the jail itself,” Saikia said. 

Buragohain said she was “extremely worried” especially about her future, college, exam and career. “I wondered what I would do after this and how I would get out of here,” she said.

It took her a while, she said, to get used to the atmosphere within the jail premises. 

Most of the inmates were older and had been in jail for longer. Their thinking was “different”, she said. “They would talk in a rough manner. As far as I know there were two women who were involved in murders, the rest were all related to drug cases.”

In the jail, she said, eight women stayed in one room. “I was scared initially and prayed for my life everyday.” She added that she felt “low and depressed”. “I think anyone in my place would have felt so.” 

Buragohain said villagers spoke behind her back, embarrassing her parents in the initial days of her arrest. “I am from a rural area and people in my village like to talk about these things.” For her and everyone around her, jails have always been synonymous to “murder or robbery”. 

(Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Assam.)

courtesy Article 13